Playing out of position

van noy

Startups are driven to grow by their investors, their boards, their advisors and their employees. Startups are all about growth. And that includes growth in the number of employees. However, the reality is that no hiring manager bats 1.000. The more hiring you do, the more firing you will be doing.  I wish I had kept track of my batting average over the decades, but my best recollection is that somewhere between and one and two employees out of ten did not work out. Either they left of their own accord or were asked to leave.

What’s important is not my batting average, but yours. One of the major mistakes I made was having employees “play out of position.” Meaning that while they may have been bright, well educated and with excellent experience, the position they were hired for didn’t truly suit their qualifications. As a result they struggled and didn’t live up to expectations.

This can easily happen when you follow the typical hiring process of writing a job description, setting out qualifications, and posting the job. If your startup is hot you will be swamped by applicants.  As the saying goes, hire slowly, fire quickly.  But of course that’s an over simplification. What happens between defining the job, filling the position and finding out that the employee isn’t working out? What do you do then? Well I won’t try to synopsize the HR process of sitting down with the employee, discussing the problems, and coming up with potential solution. What I will focus on is the issue of playing people out of position, the need to recognize this problem, and what to do about it.

In addition to having been a serial entrepreneur I’m a lifelong fan of pro football, and of The New England Patriots since their inception as the Boston Patriots of the American Football League. The article on the Pats Pulpit site Kyle Van Noy perfectly explains how Bill Belichick gets the most out of every player on the roster – The Patriots know how to utilize talent by Rich Hill is recommended reading for all startup execs and hiring managers. The article is a mini-case study of how The Detroit Lions spent a high draft pick on linebacker Kyle Van Noy, based on his college achievements as a pass rusher.

In a classic, playing someone out of position mistake, the Lions needed an off-the-ball-linebacker responsible for covering pass receivers in the slot – not rushing the passer so they put Van Noy into that position, regardless of fit.

The Lions failed to put Van Noy in a position where he could succeed and build confidence and that has a far-reaching affect on the rest of the defense. Detroit envisioned a role in their defense and asked Van Noy to fill it, despite not being a perfect match.

Belichick was smart enough to recognize Van Noy’s talent and picked up the “failed linebacker” from the Lions for a song. Today, with Belichick taking best advantage of Van Noy’s talents, he’s a key player in the Patriots defense.

Instead of forcing another player into a role that doesn’t suit their abilities, Belichick and the coaches have created a role specifically for what Van Noy can do and found other players to supplement with their respective strengths.

And that’s why Belichick gets the most out of every player on his roster and why players always seem to do better in New England than they do on other teams.

So the lesson for startups is clear: when you are hiring don’t be dazzled by an employee’s skills in an area that might not be fit for the actual job he or she is going to be asked to do. And if you make this mistake, as I have, don’t just “cut the player”, i.e. terminate the employee. Look for a position in your fast growing company that’s a better fit for this employee and thus you may gain a star in a new position while losing a “failure” in an existing position.

Many players have been quoted that one of the reason Belichick is so successful is that most football coaches bring on players and expect them to fit into their pre-conceived system. Belichick builds his teams around the talents of his players. That’s why if you study his teams some have one with great defenses, others with great offenses. And why you’ll find many players on the Patriots roster that are major contributors to the team’s success who were let go by other teams, largely because their talents didn’t fit that team’s scheme. So if you are interviewing someone who left their previous job after a short tenure by all means find out why, but don’t assume the fault is all on the candidate. You may find a gem amongst other companies’ discards.

Startups are teams and founders and both general managers – bringing on the talent, and coaches – putting the talent in the position to succeed. Much can be learned about startup team building by studying the practices of highly successful teams like The New England Patriots.


From the Boston Globe Saturday, November 18th edition, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick is quoted as saying:

I think if you have good, productive players, you try to find a way to use them – wherever they play, whatever they do. Our system has always tried to be flexible enough so that we could utilize the skill set of the players that we have, regardless of what it is is.



Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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